There’s different ways of describing it.
The Tourney. The Trek to The X. Or for some Minnesotans – Heaven.
All of these are ways to describe the Minnesota state boys hockey tournament, which starts Wednesday with the Class 1A side while Class 2A will start on Thursday.
Between now and Wednesday/Thursday, there’s a lot of time so here’s the Class 2A preview to check out. We’ll run the Class 1A preview on Tuesday.
So in the mean time, here’s a look at what you can look for with Class 2A:
(In order of seeds)
1. Duluth East (27-1)
The Skinny: Duluth East has been the favorite in many minds going back to last season’s tournament when it lost 2-1 in double overtime to Eden Prairie in the title game. East, this season, has been domineering opponents in a way to make many think this could be their year to walk away with a state title. East has a front line between Dominic Toninato (Minnesota-Duluth), Jake Randolph (Nebraska-Omaha) and Trevor Olson which can easily control the outcome of a game. But there Greyhounds have more than just them. With other forwards like Ryan Lundgren (47 points), Meirs Moore (42 points) and Connor Valesano (32 points), there is proof this team has depth.
Player to watch: Take your pick but in this case we’ll focus on goaltender Dylan Parker. East’s offense has been the story all year, but as we watched last season, goaltending is still important. Parker played in a two-goaltender system but started all three games in the section tournament. He went 309 with a 1.19 goals against average and a .933 save percentage. Parker, a junior, will certainly be tested in the opening round with Duluth East facing Lakeville South and Class 2A’s leading scorer, Justin Kloos (Minnesota).
Stat to know: Duluth East has the most dominant power play in the state. The power play was an astonishing 48.8 percent in the regular season.
Number of appearances: This is Duluth East’s 19th appearance. Duluth East has won state three times (1960, 1995 and 1998).
2. Maple Grove (24-2-2)
The Skinny: Maple Grove finally got over the mountain that was Blaine to reach the state tournament. Now that Maple Grove is here, there’s a strong possibility this is a team which could make a run at winning the whole thing. Seven players scored 19 or more points in the regular season. The section playoffs only intensified things for forwards Dylan Stenman and Spencer Bell. Stenman scored 11 points while Bell scored 10 points during the three-game section playoffs. Stenman, who has 66 points between the regular season and playoffs, already had three points before the section final game against Blaine, which was a 15-1 thumping.
Player to watch: It would have to be defenseman Jordan Gross (Notre Dame), who has established himself as one of the best talents in the entire state. Gross committed to the Fighting Irish last summer and since then has lived up to the hype. As a junior, he has scored 46 points in 28 games this year. Gross finds ways to change a game on both ends of the ice and has a chance of doing for Maple Grove what Kyle Rau did for Eden Prairie last season.
Stat to know: 50. That’s how many goals Maple Grove’s Kyle Koop has given up this season. Koop is one of two candidates for the Frank Brimsek Award for the best senior goaltender. He has a gone 24-2-2 this season with a 1.88 GAA and a .921 save percentage.
Number of appearances: This is Maple Grove’s first appearance at the state tournament.
3. Eagan (24-3-1):
The skinny: Unless something has changed, Eagan will have the distinction of having the most Division I commits (four) of any team in the tournament this season. Eagan will also have the honor of being the only team to field a defensive pairing with two Division I commits in Eli May (Minnesota-Mankato) and Sam Wolfe (Maine). Then there’s the offensive side of Eagan. Michael Zajac (Princeton) was tied for the team lead with 47 points. Will Merchant (Maine) was third for 45 points. So yeah. An offense with Division I players and a defense with Division I players. That’s an intimidating yet daunting task for any defense to handle.
Player to watch: Let’s go with Kuchera. Kuchera had a pretty good showing during the section tournament scoring seven points in three games. Kuchera’s strength is his passing as evidenced by the 37 assists he had this season. He’s the guy who helps feed the Eagan beast and makes life difficult for so many people.
Stat to know: Four. That’s how many goals Eagan put up against Moorhead in last season’s first-round tournament game.
Number of appearances: This is Eagan’s third appearance at the state tournament.
4. Edina (23-5):
The skinny: Graduation. Major Junior. Youth. You name it. Edina survived it. The Hornets survived turnover to reach the state tournament for what is now the sixth straight season. Edina’s roster via Hockey Hub shows it only has two seniors on the entire team making this season even more impressive. Maybe it can be argued this has been Curt Giles’ most impressive year since taking over the program. Edina has its “brand name” players like Louie Nanne (Minnesota), but for the most part this has been a team which has relied on the sum of all its parts. Many have said, if this isn’t Edina’s year, next year surely will be.
Player to watch: Sophomore forward Connor Hurley led Edina with 48 points in the regular season but really came alive in the section playoffs. Hurley scored seven points (2 goals, 5 assists) in three games. Hurley put his playmaker side on hold scoring two goals in the 6-3 section final win over Burnsville.
Stat to know: 9.33. That’s how many goals per game Edina scored in the section playoffs.
Number of appearances: Edina (including the program’s stint where it was two schools) is making a state-record 34th state tournament appearance and has won the state tournament a record 10 times (1969, 1971, 1974, 1978, 1979, 1982, 1984, 1988, 1997 and 2010).
5. Benilde-St. Margaret’s (22-5):
-The skinny: B-SM certainly went through its share of tragedy following what happened to up-and-coming forward Jack Jablonski, who is paralyzed after being checked from behind into the boards. B-SM overcame it all to reach the state tournament for the first time since 1998. The Red Knights have just bludgeoned defenses with four skaters who had 50 or more points in the regular season. It’s not just the scoring but when they score. B-SM has controlled the third period outscoring opponents 49-17, according to Hockey Hub.
-Player to watch: Forward Christian Horn might be the most skilled player on this team with the way he can stickhandle. But the man everyone will be watching will be Grant Besse (Wisconsin), who was one of the most dominant scorers in Minnesota this season. Besse led his team with 75 points in the regular season and in all now has 82 points and he’s done all of this as a junior. Besse’s season isn’t a surprise given he set a freshman-record 30 goals just a few years ago.
-Stat to know: 320. That’s how many shots Horn, Besse and T.J. Moore took in the regular season for the Red Knights.
-Number of appearances: B-SM is making its fourth appearance at the state tournament and has won two state titles (1999 and 2001).
6. Moorhead (21-6)
-The skinny: Moorhead is looking to bounce back from what was the worst state tournament in coach Dave Morinville’s tenure. Moorhead opened state last season with a 4-0 loss to Eagan followed by a 2-1 loss in the consolation round to Lakeville North. It was the first time under Morinville the Spuds have not won a game at state. Moorhead rebounded this year by constantly being ranked in The Associated Press poll’s Top 10 this season. Moorhead has relied upon a core group of 18 players who played on the team last season with most of them playing in the state tournament.
-Player to watch: It is easy to say goaltender Michael Bitzer. He is a Frank Brimsek candidate and in truth, frontrunner after all. But the guy to watch is defenseman Terry Leabo. Leabo has led a defense which has made life easy for Bitzer at various points this season especially in the playoffs. Moorhead’s defense only gave up 50 shots through three section games with 25 coming in the 3-1 win over Brainerd in Section 8AA finals. Leabo has also been involved on the offensive side too scoring 22 points (3 goals, 19 assists) in 27 games this season.
-Stat to know: Four. That’s how many teams in this year’s state tournament Moorhead has faced this season. Moorhead has faced Duluth East, Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Hill-Murray this season in addition to opening up against Eagan. Moorhead is 1-3 in those games having played B-SM twice this season.
-Number of appearances: Moorhead is making its 13th appearance at state and has never won a state title despite finishing second a record seven times.
7. Hill-Murray (22-6):
-The skinny: Hill-Murray recovered from last season’s section finals upset to White Bear Lake by advancing to the tournament this season. Hill-Murray is similar to Edina in the respect it lost talent due to graduation and junior hockey yet has had one of the more outstanding seasons in Minnesota this year. Don’t let the fact they’re facing a No. 2 seed indicate this could be a easy game. Hill-Murray averaged, yes, averaged six goals a game in the regular season and 4.3 in the section playoffs.
-Player to watch: Pioneers junior Jake Guentzel might be the best passer in the entire state. He has 50 assists this year and has put up 72 points throughout the year. Guentzel’s ability to see the ice and create chances has resulted in the Pioneers having so much strong scoring across the board. How Guentzel fares against Gross could easily be one of the best one-on-one match-ups this entire year.
-Stat to know: Five. That’s how many seniors the Pioneers have this year.
-Number of appearances: Hill-Murray is making its 26th appearance at the state tournament and has won three state titles (1983, 1991 and 2008).
8. Lakeville South (20-8)
-The skinny: South finally got past rival North to make its first state tournament appearance since 2008. South’s big story all season has been Kloos, who led Class 2A in point in the regular season with 81. But South will need more than Kloos if it wants to get past title favorite Duluth East. South made a change in net for the playoffs going to junior Tyler Schumacher who had a 0.39 GAA. He’ll now face what’s said to be one of the best offenses in the whole state.
-Player to watch: Paging Mr. Kloos. Kloos was killer in the regular season but took it to a new level in the playoffs scoring 10 points in the section playoff opener. He has scored a ridiculous 18 points in three section playoff games and if he can score a point against Duluth East will have a 100-point season. Kloos now stands at 39 goals and 60 assists on the season. State title or no, Kloos is having the season of the year and this is why he stands to be the favorite for Mr. Hockey.
-Stat to know: 60. It’s how many points Alex Harvey had in the regular season for the Cougars. It’s also how many assists Kloos has had this season.
-Number of appearances: Lakeville South is making its second state appearance since the district split Lakeville High into two campuses.